By David J. Hawke — "Hi. I think there is a dead deer beside the snowshoe trail. I saw part of its head sticking out of the snow." The rest of the voice mail message gave a fairly accurate location which propelled me out the door and sent me hastily on my way. Any opportunity to learn about the wildlife of the area, whether it be dead or alive, is a good opportunity.
Once in the area, I scanned about and quickly saw what the caller had discovered. Sure enough, poking up from under the thin layer of snow, was part of a deer's head. But that's all there was… no body, no fur, no bones… just part of its head.
Now before anyone gets squeamish about reading further, perhaps I should enlighten you a bit (and maybe some of you already know what's really going on.) The item laying in the snow was an antler, a really big antler, a 6-pointer!
Every winter, starting about Christmas and ending mid-January, the bucks drop or shed their antlers. It may seem like a big waste of energy to grow these heady adornments only to discard them, but it's part of the annual cycle for a male deer (moose, too). There is speculation as to why these animals have evolved to do this, and a few theories are floating around out there.
The one that makes sense to me is that the males have spent the last couple of months trying to attract does for mating, and defend said does from rival bucks. This takes a lot of energy, and the big guys don't eat properly during this time, which now means that as winter comes they are in a weakened state.
Predators like to target the weak animals in a herd, and they learned that the deer with the big pointy things on their head were no longer in good shape. But, by shedding their antlers, the bucks could blend in with the healthier does and be less noticeable. Or so goes the theory.
While we are talking antlers, I suppose this is as good time as any to talk about horns. Antlers are not horns. Horns are not antlers. Horns, as found on sheep, goats and cows are fairly solid, permanent fixtures; they grow a bit every year but stay with the animal for its entire life. However, antlers are temporary with a 10-month life span, and are 'hinged' at the skull, designed to become loosened and fall off (much like a maple leaf on its woody stem). Next year's antler growth begins almost immediately as a fuzzy bump.
Now then, how many of you readers have ever found an antler during one of your woodland walks? Hands up. That's what I thought… very few of you. Hmm, if every buck drops two antlers every year, and the antlers are of solid material, why aren't we knee-deep in shed antlers?
The answer is that coyotes love to gnaw on these found treasures and will drag the antler off into the thick woods for a good chaw (like a dog on a bone). After they become bored with it and it's left behind, porcupines will find and actually eat the darn thing. There are huge mineral deposits in this structure and, like a cow at a salt lick, the porcupines make short work of any antler they can find. Hence, few antlers are left lying about for you and me to discover.
The other critter species that likes to find and hoard antlers is humans. There is something special about handling an antler, as its smooth surface, solid feel, and interesting shape make it quite the novelty. There is another way of obtaining a set of antlers, but that requires actually killing the otherwise healthy animal. A found antler is a natural thrill, a treasure to keep.
One rather bizarre story about finding antlers occurred when I was attending an outdoor writers' conference near Killarney. We had a few hours of free time so I drove to the local dump hoping to get some pictures of ravens or bears. I was the only one there and unfortunately all the ravens and other wildlife were also absent. As I swung my car around to leave, I noticed a large set of antlers protruding from a cardboard box.
On closer examination I discovered two deer heads had been tossed into the dump (this was a few weeks after the local deer hunt). Both heads were from bucks and both had enormous sets of antlers upon them. Why they had been discarded I don't know, but here they were, and whew, they sure had begun to stink!
As much as I wanted to take them home, I had no plastic bags to put them in, or even a knife to trim away the excess meat. But surely the kitchen at the conference centre could help me! I raced back to gather up the needed tools.
When I returned about half an hour later the heads were gone. Unbelievable! Who else would be as crazy as me and put rotting, stinking deer heads in their car in hopes of retrieving the antlers? I soon got my answer.
Just as I had left the dump, another outdoor writer had pulled in to do the same thing as I had planned, to photograph dump bears. When he saw the antlers, he had a large roll of plastic garbage bags with him and within minutes he had these beauties wrapped and loaded! That night he and a friend spent a few (very smelly) hours cleaning the skulls and antlers, much to the envy of all the other outdoor writer attendees. Harrumph, some guys have all the luck.
But today it was my turn, as I returned to the car with the antler proudly displayed in my grip for all to see. And no cleanup required!
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